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Man of artful mystery

Rachel Cooke is cowed by the imperial glamour of Rory Stewart MP.

Afghanistan: the Great Game: BBC2

It was Kipling who first pushed the phrase “the Great Game” into the national consciousness in his 1901 novel, Kim – and this being one of Rory Stewart’s favourite books, he made it the title of his two-part documentary about Afghanis­tan (28 and 30 May, 9pm). The Great Game was how the British described the strategic conflict between their empire and the Russians’ in 19th-century central Asia; the Russians, more poetically, called it the Tournament of Shadows.

It is a timely bit of film-making, but first we must ponder Stewart’s very own Great Game. I am certain he’s playing one; I have never come across a man with more of a sense of himself than the Conservative member for Penrith. I just can’t quite pinpoint his goal. The romantic, T E Lawrence stuff – Stewart, once deputy governor of two provinces of Iraq, has never denied rumours that he was also a British spy – doesn’t sit with the dull pragmatism required to become foreign secretary. Who needs Dari in Whitehall?

On the other hand, you can’t help but notice the way he has become an expert on Afghan­istan, having walked across it on a whim as a younger man (later, he ran a cultural NGO in Kabul at the instigation of Prince Charles, whose sons he used to teach). The association works for him not because Afghanistan is a big story politically – the electorate cares about it very little – but because it is a country for which the word “epic” might have been invented. The battles! The bloodshed! The barren hills! If in politics a picture is worth a thousand words, the sight of Stewart standing on an ancient citadel describing the courage of some Victorian soldier is the visual equivalent of the entire works of Shakespeare. His views on Afghanistan are hardly original: he believes our invasion was an ignorant mistake. But with a mountain backdrop, and to the sound of the muezzin dancing on the breeze, good sense can start to sound remarkably like destiny, don’t you think?

Anyway, to the films. The second was dull, a rehash of the story of how the US funded the mujahedin in order to see off the Russians, though I enjoyed Stewart’s encounter in it with Joanne Herring, the Texan socialite. In the 1980s, it was Herring who encouraged the Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson, her then boyfriend, to support the Afghans by covertly supplying them with weapons. Stewart is an indiscriminate flirt; with men and women alike, he favours the foal move so beloved of Princess Diana – chin down, eyes up – and here he worked it to dizzying effect on a woman who in old age bears a strong resemblance to Zsa Zsa Gabor. I could only have been more delighted if he had begun quoting The Waste Land at her; he memorised the poem at 14.

But the first film, which concerned itself with Britain’s adventures in Afghanistan, was fascinating. Stewart clearly identifies with Alexander Burnes, the British spy whose 1834 account of his journey to Bokhara made him famous. When he described a letter Burnes wrote to his mother, in which he said he would get by using only his languages, his charm and his politeness, Stewart might have been describing his own modus operandi. His accounts of the battles of the first and second Anglo-Afghan wars were faultlessly exciting, replete with pathos and horror. Later, I was entranced by the tale of Amanullah Khan, the modernising Afghan king who in 1927 embarked on a European tour, during which he bought a fleet of Rolls-Royce cars. By the time he returned to Kabul, the rumour was that he’d purchased a machine that could turn corpses into soap.

Nevertheless, however many countries he visited and however many interviews he conducted (Stewart doesn’t interview people; he “sits with” them, village-elder-style), the star of these films was him. Anyone – even I – can point out that Afghanistan is unconquerable, but not everyone can look this good on camera: part sage, part action man, part poet. Even the dust on the hems of his jeans had come straight from central casting. When he stood on a Kabul rooftop and surveyed the city below, you felt – exude, Rory, exude! – all of his pity, his wisdom, his immense understanding. The moment was fleeting, but while it lasted, deference rose in me, unfamiliar and mildly alarming. l

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover